Sep 07, 2021

2021 US Open ATP & WTA Quarterfinals Predictions

Getting down to the business end of things at the USO. Sakkari and Andreescu are going the distance, so I’m posting this now. I’ll update it in the morning once a winner is decided. Ladies first tonight.

WTA Singles :
Raducanu vs Bencic :

I’ll get to Bencic’s quality, but the highlight of this matchup is Emma Raducanu. This section of the draw opened up bigtime when Ashleigh Barty lost, but were she still in the tournament I believe Raducanu would have given her a tough match. Thus far she has played perfect tennis. It isn’t that beating Sorribes Tormo and Rogers is so outlandish, but it’s the manner in which she did it that has me excited. 0 letdowns. Barely any unforced errors. No forcing offense when it isn’t there. A serve that is repeatable and powerful. Casual speed around the court. There doesn’t really appear to be a hole in her game, and I know Tormo and Rogers aren’t winning titles, but they just don’t get beat in such a fashion. Raducanu is top 10 caliber right now, and the only question is how she managed to only just arrive on tour. The progress must have been exponential during the tour’s pandemic break, because the quality of tennis she’s playing now suggests that a year or two ago she would have been good enough to just be cracking the top 100.

In tennis, the great results bring great challenges. You make a run at a major, and you get to face an Olympic gold medalist. Bencic and Swiatek had a very good quality match, with Belinda serving for the set at 5-4 in the first. At 30-40 she double faulted, and it looked like momentum would swing. We were instead treated to a nonstop back and forth battle that led to a tiebreaker that’s worth watching a replay of. Swiatek had a volley at 10-9 (her lead) and missed wide, and followed that up with a double fault. At 12-11 for Swiatek, Bencic had to literally put her racquet in front of her face to avoid being his by the serve, and managed to come up with a backhand pass on the next shot. I would say that Swiatek was slightly better for stretches of this match, but Bencic won the bigger points. When they played in Adelaide at the start of the year, Swiatek was dominant, and the difference in ballstriking was clear. Here, Bencic’s offense was a key. Other players made inroads against Swiatek, but couldn’t end rallies. Another key was Bencic’s use of the squash return when drawn wide to the forehand. Swiatek creates that angle better than everyone on tour except maybe Krejcikova, and it opens up the court for her. Bencic was able to buy time and limit Iga’s options with the squash slice time and time again though. Other coaches should take note of this going forward.

I’m not sure if Raducanu is ready to win this match, but she won’t lose it. Her play thus far has been as good as Belinda’s, but she hasn’t faced such a quality offense. The result in Chicago where she lost to Tauson sticks in my mind as evidence that despite her solid play, she can be outdueled by a good serve with big groundstrokes. It’s the same recipe that Bencic brings, and for the first time in this event Raducanu is likely to have her time taken away since Bencic trades so close to the baseline. These writeups get tougher as rounds progress, but this is a spot where I’ll be learning more than I can really opine. It’s a testament to Raducanu’s ability though that Bencic has just beaten a grand slam champion, and I’m unsure if she can beat Emma. Luckily, my opinion does not matter to Belinda Bencic. This seems a completely even matchup. Raducanu in 3.

Pliskova vs Andreescu/Sakkari :

Pavlychenkova’s backhand woes returned for this match, but only on break points. She played pretty much even with Pliskova, but couldn’t find the right shots to earn errors when she had opportunities. Karolina has been impeccable in rallies by her standards though. Her forehand is crushing the ball, and her movement around the court have allowed her to not only hit her backhand for effect, but also to take it down the line which is really a big indicator in tennis that you’re timing the ball well. It’s only due to this excellent play that I give her a shot in this match though, because Andreesu and Sakkari are playing some extremely high level tennis. The pace that they put on the ball and the rallies that they play made this match look like the finals, but the errors were present too. It’s rare that two players match up so well that all their matches are likely to be classics, but they fit the bill (Kvitova and Barty is another one). As I’m writing this Sakkari just took the second set tiebreaker to force a third, so I’m posting this now and will update this tomorrow morning once the winner is decided.
Update : Sakkari pulled through, in a match that had better quality than even Andreescu Golubic. These two hit the ball huge but also moved the ball better than anyone else I’ve watched thus far. This could have gone either way but Sakkari’s fitness was a huge key towards the end. The points where she was able to direct the ball to the open court for clean winners came more often, and the extra gets she made caught Bianca sneaking in to net a handful of times. There seemed to be a slight issue with Andreescu’s knee but hopefully she recovers quickly. There are no good times to get injured, but the end of the US Open is really one of the best since the season isn’t over, but is also kinda over in the sense that all 4 majors have been completed. With Sakkari against Pliskova we get a match that I think Sakkari should win comfortably. It’s no secret that I expect Sakkari’s commitment to fitness to pay dividends with several major titles, but her serving is good enough to trouble the lanky Czech champion. Pliskova is playing as well from the baseline as I’ve ever seen her, but Sakkari’s speed and ability to reflect power on both wings are just top-tier, and this is also the perfect time for her to play a big hitter, since she’s just had a few hours of getting used to Andreescu’s pace (probably the biggest on tour when she’s playing well). Pliskova’s serving will have to be exceptional here, but she certainly has a chance if the sets are close towards the end since she’s made a pretty solid commitment to aggressive returning and Sakkari will have in her head the times she’s come up short at this stage. Still, Sakkari has done the work, to pass the rest of the tour by when it comes to physical fitness. In a sport that is almost 100% cardio, hers is the best. Adding the muscle mass she has also is no small feat; a professional tennis schedule tends to burn any additional mass right off you. I’d like to see her win, and this draw has opened up really well. Sakkari in 2.

Fernandez vs Svitolina :

Fernandez’s wild ride continues, and despite being young, her title win this year will have her feeling comfortable in this situation. Kerber was one of the most solid defenders left in the tournament, but Fernandez’s ability to redirect the ball on her backhand and cover the court with her speed made it an even contest. I’d say Kerber is an equal opponent to Svitolina, but Svitolina has a bit more power in her forehand, and her being right-handed makes a big difference here. Kerber’s usual shot patterns didn’t work, but Svitolina’s will. Her forehand crosscourt will have a safe home, and her backhand crosscourt will open up the court nicely. Fernandez plays the typical lefty game, but when she’s dragged wide to her forehand side she doesn’t tend to send the ball all the way crosscourt (like ARV or Delbonis or Nadal). This means that Svitolina may be getting a forehand in the center of the court when she’s able to put power into her backhand. These two met a year ago with Svitolina winning in two, and I expect something similar. Being that this is a major, Svitolina is not a guaranteed performer, but she’s won 9 matches in a row and her and Monfils both seem to have an extra boost in their games since tying the knot. Getting married and winning matches is not scientific analysis, but sometimes having good things in your personal life can really remove the stress of expectations on the court. Fernandez will make this difficult, but these two should have trouble scoring on each other and Svitolina’s particular game matches up well. Svitolina in 2.

Krejcikova vs Sabalenka :

Most people have heard by now that Krejcikova may not be 100%. That makes this match tough to call. Up 6-3 and 4-0, Barbora looked like she had Muguruza finished. Muguruza did not look pleased, and hit a ball angrily into the backstop. Muguruza then proceeded to win 5 games in a row. It was confusing to watch, and the run got all the way to 6-5 her lead before Krejcikova called a medical timeout. She claimed to have issues in her core area, and said she was having difficulty breathing. It was undoubtedly a key point in the match, so Muguruza was not pleased that the MTO was called. What made things more tense, was that Krejcikova returned and played 4 perfect points, and then a near perfect tiebreaker to close out the match. Muguruza was heard to call her unprofessional during the handshake, and it raised some debate online.

Medical timeouts are always going to look strategic. Most players on tour have some physical issues they’re dealing with, and most are going to play through them as long as things are going well. If things stop going well, your excuses begin to come to mind. Unlucky points, fans making noise, physical issues, glitches in your swing; all these things begin to become unbearable as you descend into immaturity and frustration. It should come as no surprise then that players really only call for the trainer when they’re struggling. MTOs are not supposed to be strategic, but the WTA did previously have coaching visits as a big part of the game(they eliminated this due to the pandemic), so many players know that a break can reset momentum. Krejcikova would later say in a post-match interview that she was having trouble breathing, and felt dizzy, and the world was shaking. This does mean that it was likely situational more than physical, but this sounds very much like a panic attack. Although your opponent being nervous should not afford them a timeout, the physical effects of this are real, and it is unlikely that she would have been able to play at that point. The reset and quality that she brought back to the court does make sense, because as uncomfortable as anxiety can be, it is temporary and does pass. Overwhelming fear on court is something that has troubled quite a few players in recent history, most notably Cilic before his finals defeat to Federer at Wimbledon. Medical timouts and bathroom breaks are certainly taking on a strategic nature, but there’s no solid or safe way to refuse them so players will have to compartmentalize their complaints. I did think it was funny for Muguruza to call Krejcikova unprofessional when she was receiving coaching during the match. At one point the camera cut to Muguruza’s coach for a moment, who was fully engaged in directing her to lunge to the right (no idea what the message was, but she was physically acting out the move). When the cameraperson realized what they filming, they quickly cut away.

If Krejcikova is healthy, she can beat Sabalenka. I first noticed how good Krejcikova was in the tournament in Linz where she lost to Sabalenka. Krejcikova’s backhand and groundstrokes were so smooth and she just looked unstoppable. When she played Sabalenka though, her time was taken away, and her big swings became a liability. Yet even clearly troubled, she still managed to go to a third set. Krejcikova is significantly better now and has worked out her court positioning. Sabalenka will roll if Krejcikova has physical issues again, but nerves are unlikely to persist for a whole match (this is assuming that she doesn’t have an actual core injury). Sabalenka’s power is only really a liability when she’s forced to move or to endure long rallies. It’ll be patience and accuracy against power and creativity. Since tennis is about consistency, I’d lean slightly towards Krejcikova. Krejcikova in 3.

ATP Singles
Djokovic vs Berretini :

This matchup is apparently the one Berretini has to solve if he wants to win a major. This will be their third straight meeting in a major (they played at Wimbledon and the French). Very few of the next gen players have produced in the majors as well as Matteo Berretini, but he has run into the big 3 and hasn’t really made any inroads, except for two tough tiebreaker wins against Djokovic. There isn’t anything lopsided about the scorelines when he plays Nadal, Feder, or Djokovic, but there is a very inevitable feeling about the outcomes, and it manifests as a lot of pressure in his service games.

It’s a bit meta, but there is always a sub-battle in a tennis match to establish that you’re more comfortable in certain patterns of rallies. Whoever looks to have a slight edge in consistency in the backhand-to-backhand exchanges often induces their opponents to have to create different looks, and this can cause errors. Whoever establishes themselves as having a more complete baseline game can often establish service pressure on their opponent. This is all subtle perception, but when this pressure is on you, you know you can’t afford to blink. The good thing about Berretini’s game is that he doesn’t blink. He is incredibly clutch and despite having a subpar two-handed backhand, he doesn’t play outside himself. The backhand is where he is losing this backhand thus far though. Slice backhands are fine, and can be effective at times, but they provide a safehaven for an opponent when they’re in trouble. Novak knows that there is a whole section of the court where Berretini will not hit it past him from. He does hit two-handers at times, but not really for winners from the baseline. In the slices defense, Berretini loves to hit forehands, and the slice backhand (since you can redirect the ball from further back in the court) requires less footwork over time. For a serve, keeping your legs fresh is huge, and Berretini’s ability to serve big late in matches is part of the reason he’s such a clutch player.

Matteo’s match against Otte was basically what was expected. Otte maintained a high level of serving, and his funky low-toss delivery has earned him a lot of fans this week. This match was one where Otte was unable to afford a lapse though, and Berretini’s service holds were pretty much stress-free, aside from one poor game at the beginning of the second set where he was up 40-0 and just lost focus for a second. Midway through the game he had an overhanded and didn’t really move his feet. Not a huge red flag, as the shot was simple, but I remember thinking how easy it is to slow down when you realize the match is pretty much over. Otte played well, but Berretini’s forehand was able to dominate rallies. Otte’s US Open came to a rough end, as he took a tumble going for a shot and injured his thumb-wrist. There a lot of tiny bones in that area, and he said he was experiencing jolts of pain in his arm in the 4th set, so there is a chance he’ll have to take some time off. Not great timing since he’d have a good chance to make some inroads in the indoor season, but let’s not forget that prior to this week, almost all his points on tour have come on clay.

Djokovic has been a puzzle in some of his matches this year, seeming to sleepwalk through some sets and struggle mightily in others. This was no different against Jenson Brooksby, as Novak lost the first set 6-1 and seemed terribly out of sorts. It was similar to the Nishikori result in terms of the 3-1 scoreline, but the first set was just odd. A nearly 20 minute service game in the second had me thinking that maybe Novak’s lack of matches and the pressure to win a calendar slam were getting to him, but he held serve, and basically ran away with the contest from there. Earlier in the season I watched Jenson serve-volley a lot and play much more aggressive tennis than he did this week, so I don’t consider him just a pusher. He has looked tired since the 3rd set against Ymer in round one, and what I suspect has happened is that he is exhausted, but his tennis is just too good for him to make errors. The measured and consistent approach he has taken has been great, and he pushed Djokovic to the limit tonight in terms of duration, if not in the scoreline.

Djokovic is now one of the bigger question marks in the event. He’s played some dominant tennis, and he’s looked downright human. This fast court is probably the surface where Berretini would be expected to first beat Novak, but it also lends some pace to Djokovic’s serve, which is generally located better than most players on tour, and only really is a liablity when he begins collapsing during his second serve delivery. The matchup looming in people’s minds is Novak against Zverev, and Zverev is actually looking like the stronger player right now. Berretini will be a good look at where Djokovic’s level can rise to, as the way he played against Brooksby tonight is not quite good enough to dominate the Italian, but good enough to win. The big 3 are notorious for fooling fans into thinking “this is the time they lose!” so I’m hesitant to entertain that thought. Berretini is an underdog here, but he’s making inroads on surfaces that aren’t his best. I’d expect him to win a set, but not the match. Djokovic in 4-5.

Zverev vs Harris :

It’s hard to say that Harris is the better player leading into this, but his results so far this fortnight have been unreal. A come from behind win against silver medalist Karen Khachanov, a straight sets dismissal of Shapovalov, and today a multiple break win against Reilly Opelka who hadn’t dropped a set yet. Zverev could have offered up the same performances at the level he’s playing now, but hasn’t in the past. The hallmarks of Harris’ game are his fitness, and his serve. The guy is in better shape than most of the tour, and plays a bit deeper in the court than he needs to. The result is that he’s very difficult to hit through, and since he has such impressive physical strength, he’s able to keep good length on his shots. When he does get inside the baseline, his forehand is a cannon, and this week his backhand down the line has been a very useful shot. It definitely will be necessary against Zverev, since the backhand to backhand exchanges are Zverev’s favorite place to camp.

Harris’ service motion is fluid and he generates easy power. Going into the match with Opelka, I felt that he was about even in the serving duel because of Opelka’s struggle returning, but Zverev doesn’t just automatically get every ball back in play. Shapovalov is extremely quick and a good (too aggressive but impatient) returner, and Harris proved very difficult for him to break (I believe he only broke once the entire match). The Harris is great section will pause for a moment now, because unfortunately Zverev is playing the best tennis of anyone in the event. His serve was always a problem, but was inconsistent. It is now something that he regularly can rely on to get him out of difficult situations. Against Sinner he faced break points and the crowd in some situations, and just bounced the ball into the backstop a few times and got home. Sinner found his best tennis late in the match, but still was unable to steal the third set. Zverev’s backhand down the line was his best weapon when he came on tour, and he appears to have found the range on this shot again. His forehand has been a painfully unreliable shot, but this season it has been a reliable weapon. His talent is dragging him forward, and the inconsistency is disappearing because his physical strength is overcoming any nerves. If he is able to evade his ego, this is a guy who can win the next 10 majors. If you listened to his post-match interview, that will be a tough ask though. He managed to point out that he has no girlfriend, so he sleeps with his gold medal. It was a funny joke in a vacuum and an okay response to a goofy question (they seem to be asking everyone if they’re bringing their medals with them in post-match interviews) but Zverev’s lack of self-awareness is a constant reminder that he has been so sheltered and coddled that he doesn’t know how to be an adult.

Drama and character aside, Zverev is a deserved favorite in this match. Sinner has more weapons than Harris and Zverev’s win seemed inevitable. Without the serve yips, and forehand struggles, and passive backhands, Zverev is one of the most complete players on tour. The crowd may get involved, and Harris’ solid play may frustrate him, but he’s going to have an edge in the backhand exchanges, and he’s going to be the best returner that Harris has faced thus far. This is a match I’d expect to see some momentum shifts, because Harris is playing great, but Zverev should have the same ability to hold as Opelka did early on, and with a top 5 baseline ability. Zverev in 4.

Auger-Aliassime vs Alcaraz :

Felix Auger-Aliassime is a future number one, and the only way this won’t happen is if Zverev begins dominating the tour now, and does not stop for the rest of his career. FAA’s play against RBA was the best he’s ever played, and the most consistent. He backed this up with a dominant performance against Tiafoe. Tiafoe in a deep run at a major isn’t something I usually expect, but once he’s playing his best, it tends to continue. I wondered if perhaps FAA would find some passivity in the moment, knowing that he was likely to outlast Tiafoe. This didn’t come at all. That is the ascension of a champion. When the results finally come, when the level finally appears, they don’t stop there. Felix went big on his forehand whenever he could, and this let him dominate the match. Tiafoe probably wins a footrace with 90% of the tour, but he was not quick enough to negate Auger-Aliassime’s advantage in the hitting department. They split the opening sets, but it didn’t seem like FAA would drop his level and the most important part was that it seemed necessary for him to do so in order to lose. What we saw from early Federer was a willingness to go for the shots that would win regardless of the situation, and what we saw from Nadal was a commitment to playing at the same level for an entire match. These are really good signs from FAA, and he’s still young enough that he’ll likely make significant improvements in his strength over the coming years.

If FAA answered the call for the next great champion, he only did so after Alcaraz appeared. Carlos Alcaraz’s forehand makes it look his his arm has no bones, and I will never watch a match of his if Brad Gilbert is commentating because you know that guy is going to say “fearhand” 100 times. For FAA the results are expected to come at some point, but for Alcaraz we were willing to wait a while longer, so this has come as a big surprise. His talent is clear and his power is worldclass on the forehand side, but he’d been struggling to find wins on hardcourt and despite his win against Tsitsipas being the biggest name, the way he was able to dismantle Cam Norrie in round one in straights was the most impressive thing. It isn’t that Cam Norrie is some worldbeater, it’s just that nobody beats him like that. It is the same as Raducanu beating Tormo 6-0 and being 5-0 up in the second; the win is believable but the manner in which it happened is something relatively unseen. Alcaraz, like most Spanish tennis players, has a very good ability to compete. The focus and consistency that they bring to the game is something that every other program should emulate, and it’ll be a key for Alcaraz since FAA is going to be the slightly bigger hitter in this matchup.

All tennis keys seem obvious, but Alcaraz will need to avoid errors on his backhand. FAA has been doing most of his damage on his forehand wing, and in the serving department he’s a bit better at this stage. Felix has been willing to drive his backhand with depth and wait to earn purchase inside the baseline, so Alcaraz needs to avoid forcing anything. With the weight of FAA’s shot, it’ll also be a bit difficult for Alcaraz to work in the dropshot. This reminds me a bit of the Zverev Sinner matchup, where both are playing great tennis but one is a little bit further along in their career. These are “if” matchups because if either player is able to dominate this matchup, then their chances against Medvedev may not be that bad at all. The 4 sets with Tiafoe were dominant, but Alcaraz is a step up so I somewhat expect this to go deep as well. Auger-Aliassime in 5.

Van De Zandschulp vs Medvedev :

Botic Van De Zandschulp and Jenson Brooksby are two of my favorite players to exceed expectations in smaller events, and I’ve been following them for a while, but Van De Zandschulp has somehow still flown under my radar in a sense. I’ve been backing him in challenger matches and in his tour ventures nonstop, and for a guy with a big serve, his baseline game is very effective. It never occurred to me that he could actually beat Schwartzman though. Diego has a way of wearing his opponents down, and making rallies so exhaustingly difficult that they force shots. There was none of this from Botic, and winding up in a fifth set after being up 2-0 and still winning is almost an unexpected result for a new tour player. I almost feel like writing him off in this next match may be unfair, because “this is the end of the road” is something you can usually get away with predicting with a young player. Instead, I’ll say that I actually don’t know where the ceiling currently is for Van De Zandschulp. Unlike Otte and Gojowczyk, this is not a temporary visit to the top of the game for Botic. He’s doing this without big holes in his game, and his physical fitness is proving to be top tier.

It doesn’t seem like Medvedev has been challenged thus far, as he hasn’t dropped a set and is breaking early and often. Van De Zandschulp’s serve will have to be at its best, and Medvedev is actually a whole extra tier up from Diego in terms of defending, so it’ll be a big ask. Where he does have some hope, is that most of the trouble Medvedev has had on tour has been with big servers. When he finds himself late in sets that he feels he shouldn’t be in, he tends to get frustrated and that frustration is visible. It doesn’t seem like that’s a good enough strategy to award a W to Botic, but it’ll be the first big test for Medvedev. Side note : I often gripe about Tennis Channel announcers being terrible, so I try not to include it in every post. Today though, I heard one asking another about Botic, and whether he had seen him play. I get that part of the job is to introduce new players to the listeners, but the flippant way in which some of the announcers make it obvious that they don’t watch tennis unless they’re being paid to announce it is awkward af. These people are supposed to be honing a craft and be experts about the tour and the sport, but they’re just retired kibitzers. For fans, Botic may be a new name. For people following the tour, the guy has been crushing worlds in the Challenger events and the internet is literally filled with highlight videos of every player who possesses a name. It’s inexcusable. I DONT EXCUSE IT!!!!! Haha I guess it’s okay though. At least they’re bothering to learn how to pronounce his name right. I don’t think Botic can win here, but Medvedev may be caught off guard by how well Van De Zanschulp is playing and most of the people Med is dispatching so far are people whose games and patterns he’s very familiar with. Medvedev in 4.